Hold on to your gardening hats, I’m about to commit heresy: it’s not about the flowers. Good gardens are all about space, the shape of it, the treatment of it, the feel of it. The prevailing wisdom has been that we ought to treat our landscapes as a series of little rooms, and to paint those little rooms with our flower palette.
Nonsense. Good gardening is architectural, and the same principles that govern the design of buildings govern the design of space. The little room theory may give you a selection of interesting vignettes, but it cannot give you a cohesive, unified space. It cannot give you that because it starts from a point way too close to the end and not from, you guessed it, the beginning.
The beginning is the land, and what you see in it, and what you feel as you move through it. I can walk a piece of raw land and know where the house should be sited, which is another article altogether but I repeat it here because the land says something. It has inclines and angles and curves, it has hills that plateau and fall away. It has shadows and light patterns according to the seasonal arc of the sun and the monthly phase of the moon. It’s open or forested, exposed or sheltered, mountain or meadow.
Whether you’ve got a forty-acre plot in the country or a 50×100 foot lot in the city, it’s got a feel. Clearly, on a raw piece of property you’ve got a greater ability to read the land’s natural bent than you have with a developed parcel, but I guarantee you that each one is saying something. The problem with designing from the page to the land, of imposing an arbitrary design upon the site, is that it presumes each site speaks the same language. Not true.
Each site has a distinct voice, but gardeners and landscapers regularly ignore that voice in favor of — God help us — the artificiality of kidney-shaped gardens and s-curved walkways. They transpose cottage gardens to Georgian brownstones, and Tuscan formality to New England farmhouses. Why? Because somebody saw a picture in a magazine and said, I want that. Folks, an English cottage garden is fabulous if you’re in a cottage in the Cotswolds. The question isn’t whether or not that picture is enchanting; the question is whether or not that garden belongs within your landscape.
One of my favorite examples of this failure to be site-appropriate existed, until this past year, on a gorgeous parcel in Scarborough, Maine. The property has an expansive southwest view of what is known as a wet meadow; open, lacy, altogether spectacular. I should say it has that view now, because I’ve spent the last four years carving away all the inappropriate material the previous owner had planted. Front to back, side to side, the property was packed with Mugo pine, conifers galore and every variety of juniper you can imagine. No, seriously: prostrate juniper, dwarf juniper, columnar juniper, juniper Chinensis. The long view, this smashing long view, was blocked at every turn, which is undoubtedly why he built the deck.
Deck season, however, is pretty short here in Maine, and my objective from day one was to establish sight lines from key areas throughout the property, and to open the view from within the house. To get an understanding of sight lines, think about observation points along mountain roads or coastal routes. They do more than provide you with a charming vista; they connect you, immediately and intimately, to the land or to the sea, to place. There’s a great translation of that word, place: an indefinite region or expanse. When we chisel a property into little rooms, when we create such limited, defined regions, we disconnect ourselves from the expanse. You want to know another word for expanse? Firmament; translation, heaven, and yes, I was one of those dorky kids who read the dictionary. I’ll let you chortle for a moment and then resume.
The second objective was to rid the property of everything that jarred me out of the serenity of place. Here was a parcel that felt like a bird sanctuary as I walked every undeveloped portion of the land, but was harsh, dark and closed everywhere else. The house, by the way, was open and airy, so the architect clearly got it right; he designed a physical habitat that fit the natural habitat. Site-specific design is the hallmark of good architecture, because it is the perfect marriage of interior to exterior. This is true of land design as well; the better I do it, the less “done” it looks.
So what did I replace all that harsh material with? Again, I copied nature. There are grasses now along the slope where the juniper Chinensis was, intermingled with lavender and day lilies. The grasses mimic the meadow, the lavender attracts bees which pollinate the rest of the garden, and the fat little tubers of the lilies help hold the soil in place. The fact that they all tolerate a sandy, slightly acidic environment is no coincidence, either. When I talk about design to site I mean it in every sense, from the metaphysical to the practical.
That I chose those particular materials in that particular combination doesn’t mean that there weren’t other possibilities, and here’s why I say it’s not about the flowers. Once I created the space, once I reestablished a connection between the slope and the rest of the property, I was home free. I could have done one mass planting of a single ornamental grass, and it would have been spectacular. I could have done hybrid day lilies, or common orange day lilies mixed with Russian sage, or ditched the lilies altogether and mixed the sage with English thyme. I did what I did as an expression of the owner; if the day comes that he wants to say something different with that little piece of land, we can switch materials without altering the quality of the space.
The Roman philosopher Seneca said, All art is an imitation of nature. The art of site design is to figure out what the land is doing, and follow along.